Harrietville fires inquest | Shouts, a crash, then devastation

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Lives on the line

New life cruelly cut short

A COUPLE of shouts and then the sound of a crash.

That was the horrifying recollection yesterday of two firefighters who saw two colleagues killed by a falling tree.

Katie Peters was driving a Toyota firefighting utility — known as a “slip on” — when she died with Steven Kadar by her side on February 13 last year.

Seasonal firefighter Reuben Tierney was talking to a fellow firefighter when he heard a metallic impact sound, “like a tree had fallen on a vehicle”.

Miss Peters, 19, and Mr Kadar, 34, had been fighting the Harrietville fire when they were killed instantly in the incident, which happened just after 3pm.

The Wodonga Coroner’s Court heard yesterday how firefighter Cameron McDonald had watched Katie Peters drive past the back of a fire tanker.

They were heading east back along the Pheasant Creek Track through a back burning area.

“I heard the crack of a tree,” said Mr McDonald, who works as a Department of Primary Industries and Environment field services officer at Mitta.

“It is an unmistakable noise that I have heard many times before.”

Mr McDonald immediately looked up and saw a dead ash tree, up to 40 metres tall, fall towards the track behind the tanker.

“I did not hear the sound of crashing metal, just a loud crash,” he said.

At first he thought the tree had missed the vehicle driven by Miss Peters, as it was resting about six metres away.

“It was then as I approached the cabin that I realised the tree had hit the slip on,” he said.

“It was a total shock.”

Mr Tierney remembers seeing the tree across the Pheasant Creek Track.

The vehicle appeared to be rolling forward, and then he heard someone shouting “get a saw, get a saw, get a saw”.

He soon realised though that something very serious had happened.

The fire eventually burnt 37,000 hectares over 55 days after it was started by lightning on January 21 last year.

Much of yesterday’s events were taken up with investigating why firefighters continued to work in the Pheasant Creek Track area that February 13 when it was well-known there were serious dangers posed by falling trees.

Mr McDonald himself had a tree miss his vehicle “by about 30 centimetres” a couple of weeks earlier, on January 28.

Also of concern was why firefighters were in the area when there was an expectation of storms that afternoon.

But long-time Benalla-based DEPI worker Michael Todd said conditions were not of any great concern.

Mr Todd was working as a strike team leader of the Goulburn crew.

Coroner John Olle asked Mr Todd whether February 13 should have been declared a “red flag day” because of the predicted storms, which could have resulted in the evacuation of firefighters.

But Mr Todd said the winds that day were light at about 10km/h and probably would not rise by much when the change came through.

“It wasn’t a severe change, it wasn’t a thunderstorm cell,” he said.

“For me it was just a normal day for us.”

Nevertheless, he said, crews were moved to known safe areas — such as where ground was already blacked-out by fire — when the weather worsened.

Mr Todd said crews were briefed daily on the danger of looking out for dangerous trees, which were marked with yellow crosses.

The inquest continues today.

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